The Politics of H-Block
The H-Block issue has caused divisions in Irish society deeper than any exposed during the last decade of troubles in Northern Ireland. Not alone are the unionist and, nationalist communities now sharply polarized again, but there has arisen the spectre of a deep and hostile division between the nationalist community in the North and the vast majority of the people of southern Ireland.
The degree of support for H-Block protesters in the Catholic areas of Northern Ireland has witnessed no parallel, certainly not since the civil rights demonstrations of the late 1960s. The Roman Catholic community's alienation from the Provisional IRA was thought to be almost complete following a succession of atrocities, culminating in the La Mons disaster, and the very obvious support given to the Peace People in 1976. Yet it was during the Peace People's most notable triumphs on the streets of the Falls and Shankill that the H-Block issue started to germinate. It was that summer that young Kieran Nugent started on his blanket protest, which seemed doomed to failure and a wall of public indifference.
The support on the outside for the H-Block protest was minimal and Provisional Sinn Fein seemed unable to muster even a gesture of solidarity. Certainly they were not prepared to co-operate with individuals or organizations that were not also prepared to support the military struggle. This has been one of the major issues of division within the Provisional republican movement for several years. Some of the die-hard elements don't want to co-operate with people who have reservations about the military campaign, while others are more aware of the need for a broad anti-imperialist front.
It was perhaps Bernadette McAliskey more than anyone else who convinced the die-hards within the Provos to cooperate with individuals and groups on a broad front. She organized the Coalisland conference in early 1979 and while the Provos attempted to pack the meeting and block votes on issues it opened their awareness to the possibilities of a broad campaign. The Relatives Action Committee included many non-Provo supporters and there had been several clashes within it over the question of support for the military campaign.
The Provos themselves eventually agreed on a broad front strategy and took part in a Relatives Action conference in the Green Briar Hotel, Belfast in September of last year. Even then they were ambiguous about their commitment to co-operation with other groups. The chairperson of the meeting was a committed Provo and although there was a rule that no person could speak more than once, Gerry Adams, Vice President of Provisional Sinn Fein, spoke on at least ten occasions and managed to dominate proceedings. Resolutions from other organizations were hindered and of course any criticisms of the Provo campaign went unheard.
In spite of this, a broad-based national H-Block movement got off the ground, with support from the IRSP, the Peoples Democracy, Bernadette McAliskey's organization in mid-Ulster and a number of other small groups, as well as Provisional Sinn Fein. The progress of the campaign has been classically successful. There was a gradual build up of activity, with demonstrations attracting greater and greater support. But of course it wasn't just the astute organization of the campaign which led to the vast volume of support it has won across the Northern Catholic community. Other factors were of greater significance.
Perhaps the most important of these has been the failure of successive political initiatives on the part of the British Government. An indication of the Catholic frustration with the stalemate is the refusal of the SDLP to participate in another round of elections for another convention or assembly which doesn't offer them guaranteed power-sharing. Also the renewed interest by the SDLP in the all-Ireland dimension. Whatever else the SDLP may be, it is a good barometer of feeling within the Catholic community, even if it lags behind on the more hard line issues, such as H-Block.
Then, of course, there has been the continued tale of brutality and torture emanating from Castlereagh. It wasn't difficult to link this with the H-Block issue, as virtually all the prisoners of H-Block have graduated through Castlereagh and many of them have undoubtedly been brutalised and made to sign forced confessions.
And finally there was the apparent reasonableness of the demands of the prisoners. Whatever else the Catholic community thinks of the Provisional IRA, they know that there is a political motivation involved in their campaign and the refusal to acknowledge this by the authorities seems merely vindictive.
Inside the prison, the initial H-Block protesters were young, inexperienced members of the movement. They understood the basic politics of jail protest but they had little sense of leadership. Through the aegis of the authorities however this deficiency was rectified by the placement of Brendan Hughes in the H-Blocks, where he quickly became the chief organizer of the protest.
Hughes, aged 32, had been on the Belfast brigade staff of the Provisionals prior to his capture in 1974 in a flat off the Malone Road in Belfast. He had previously been arrested and beaten in June 1973 but he escaped from Long Kesh in October of that year, hidden inside a used mattress which was being dumped. Hughes was OIC of his cage in Long Kesh and was a special category prisoner - the charge on which he was convicted was committed prior to March 1976, the cut off date for special category status. Hughes got involved in a row between another prisoner and a warder after the warder had insulted the prisoner's wife during a visit. Hughes was convicted of assault on the warder, even though another warder had given evidence in support of Hughes' defence that he had moved in to break up the row. As the assault charge related to a time after March 1976 Hughes suddenly lost his special category status and was transferred from the compound at Long Kesh to one of the H-Blocks. He was thus able to provide the young inexperienced protesters with the kind of hard determined leadership which their campaign had lacked previously.
The young prisoners had been pressing for some considerable time for a hunger strike in order to bring their protest to a head. Hughes had the maturity to resist this pressure, knowing that without adequate support from the outside there would be needless and wasteful deaths. He went along with the various attempts that were being made for mediation, through Cardinal a Fiaich and Bishop Daly and others but eventually saw that there was no option but to accede to the demand for a hunger strike. The authorities, recognising the pivotal role Hughes was playing in the unfolding protest. split up the protesting prisoners into different sections of the prison. Therefore, Hughes could no longer effectively act as overall O/C but his influence was nonetheless decisive.
The Provisional IRA leadership on the outside has been apprehensive about this protest for a long time and were fervently opposed to the hunger strike. Contrary to the frequently asserted belief, the Provo leadership have always tried to dampen down prison protests for these have consequences to the conduct of the military campaign which are entirely unpredictable and, in any event, often conflict with the immediate strategic plans of the IRA headquarters staff.
They have been more apprehensive about this present protest and hunger strike than ever before, recognizing that if the protest fades out or is beaten, then the loss of face for the movement as a whole is almost catastrophic. They have of course attempted to steer its course - for instance, it was the IRA leadership which managed to hold off the hunger strike until October 27 and they have had a say on which prisoners were to join the strike, but in no sense could the Provisional leadership be accused of cynically exploiting the situation in H-Block for its own advantage.
The reaction of the southern political establishment to the H-Block protest is all the more surprising given the fact that the political prisoners in Portlaoise enjoy virtually all the "privileges" being demanded by the H-Block men. The Portlaoise political prisoners wear their own clothes, they enjoy free association among themselves and they are segregated from the other prisoners in the jail, they have special recreational and educational facilities and there is a prison shop where they can purchase food and cigarettes. They have their own jail organization, their O/C negotiates on behalf of the prisoners with the prison authorities, they hold classes and lectures on a wide variety of issues, including political subjects. For instance one of the classes currently being held is on the origins of the war - i.e. the war in Northern Ireland.
These concessions were wrung out of the Coalition Government by a hunger strike by a number of prisoners, including former Chief of Staff, Joe Cahill. In an affidavit which Cahill swore during another hunger strike in 1975, he states that the 1973 hunger strike ended when the Governor of Mountjoy, Frawley, read a letter to the prisoners in which the authorities conceded a list of demands, including that the Provisional prisoners would be segregated from all other prisoners, wouldn't have to do prison work etc. The prison leadership replied that the hunger strike would continue until the Government recognized the political status of the prisoners.
The Governor withdrew, according to the affidavit, and returned later to inform the protesting prisoners: "(a) since 1922 the Government had refused to afford any group of prisoners recognition as political prisoners. (b) that in the present circumstances, because of the situation in the North, the Government recognized that because of the involvement of the Provisional Republican Movement in the Northern situation, the prisoners were in a special category". On the basis of this assurance the hunger strike was ended. Shortly afterwards there was the helicopter escape from Mountjoy and subsequently the Provisional prisoners were moved to Portlaoise.
The Coalition Government, and recently Garret FitzGerald, have at all times maintained that at no stage did they surrender to a threat of a hunger strike but the facts seem to suggest otherwise. The fact of the matter is that changes of a kind being demanded by the prisoners during the hunger strike occurred immediately after the protest. The obvious conclusion must be that the Coalition Government has capitulated to hunger strikes but that the integrity of the prison system was in no way threatened by the nature of the concessions granted.
The next big protest in the campaign comes on Saturday, December 6, when there will be a protest outside the British embassy. The National H-Block Committee will be hoping for a demonstration at least as big as that to Leinster House on November 22. when as many as 30,000 people marched.
But whatever the outcome, the divide between the Catholic community in Northern Ireland and the rest of the population on this island is deeper now than ever. The Catholic minority must now bear whatever further tribulations arise very much as an isolated case, ignored and reviled by the rest of Ireland.